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    Why non-scientists are not the only pain in the arts
    By Richard King | January 20th 2010 08:43 AM | Print | E-mail | Track Comments


    Recently, I came across an article in “The Times”, “Why non-scientists are a pain in the arts” by Ben Miller, presumably the physicist turned comedian, going back to his science roots, which explains a lot. The title of the piece derives from an art graduate who thinks the moon landings were a fake.

    After berating the media for being arts dominated Miller goes on to write: 

    This is how we end up in the ludicrous situation we find ourselves in with the Large Hadron Collider. Ten thousand of the world’s top scientists spend 20 years building the ultimate in particle accelerators at a cost of £4.4 billion and the only story that makes the headlines is the one about some nutter in Hawaii who thinks it’s going to cause a black hole that devours the Universe. This is somehow conflated into a story that when the machine gets switched on, scientists believe we are all toast. And when the ruddy thing was finally powered up, everyone shakes their heads in bemusement at the endless folly of scientists. Haven’t they got any common sense? Can’t they see that turning that thing on was never going to herald the Apocalypse? And E=mc2 or not, what kind of barmcake doesn’t wear socks?

    That, of course, is totally wrong. The large Hadron Collider was built by engineers. Wanting something, wishing for something, is one thing, realizing it is quite another. I doubt if scientists would know were to begin, after all, science is only a small part of engineering, less than 20%, so scientists would well short of the required knowledge, let alone expertise and judgment; besides, engineering requires art, among many others things, as well as science, when appropriate.

    Miller later writes:

    The problem is, of course, that success in the arts depends on having — how can I put this charitably? — interesting opinions, whereas success in the sciences depends on one thing alone: maths.”

    Mathematics, like science, is only a tool, useful at times, though not always. Besides, I would rather listen to interesting arts opinions than the overbearing arrogance that pervades much of science these days, as well as it being full of errors that many scientists and their acolytes are too blind to see.

    Success depends on
    maths?

    There was a time when bridges were safe, according to the mathematics; just one problem, at least until other problems came along, the mathematics of aerodynamics, or lack of it. So, before the aerodynamics came in, there was a large element of over design; following the Tay Bridge disasterwhen it was brought down by a storm, came, on a never again, like the Tay Bridge, basis, the Forth Bridge; massively over designed but safe, still standing after 130 years and a magnificent piece of art as well.

    Then there was the situation of aircraft being safe, according to the mathematics, apart from a small matter of stress fracture, as in the Comet aircraft of the 1950s.

    One of the many examples on a personal experience level was during my time in the aircraft industry, specifically the early 1980s when I was responsible for the stress analysis and some of the design of the fuselage tanks and floor structure of the VC10 air-to-air refueling tankers and still in service, it seems. For peculiar reasons it was specified that the tanks had to be flat ended, despite being required to take internal and external pressure, and had to be mounted on the seat rails, rather than a special purpose raft, an extra structure. In the crash case, according to the structural analysis and the mathematics, the tanks would go through the aircraft floor. Ron Boxer, the Deputy Chief Stressman, with whom I was working, suggested recalculating assuming the floor beams nearest the tank supports deformed plastically but the tanks still went through the floor; try the next two as well, still structural failure; try the next two as well, reserve factor of 1.01. After a few seconds thought Ron decided that would do. The mathematics, combined with structural theory, took us only so far; thereafter it was down to engineering judgement based on over thirty years experience of aircraft structures.

    Mathematics is useful but there is no substitute for experience and
    judgment, especially engineering experience and judgement in practical situations; the same applies to science.

    Mathematics provided no proof in the case of the black hole scare story, connected with the Large Hadron Collider, being wrong, it was, still is, only a tool for assisting in an assessment.

    Overall, Ben Miller’s writing and reasoning reads more like a script for the Armstrong and Miller Show, which I have found very occasionally amusing, never particularly funny.

    Ben Miller’s piece is subtitled, “Were the moon landings faked? Yes or know, I for one would never trust the irrational opinion of a mere arts graduate.”

    Well, apart from accepting that the moon landings were real, after all it was we engineers who made it possible, I for one, would never trust the often, arrogant, not always entirely rational, opinion of a mere science graduate; I know more than enough about science, as well as other matters, to be quite capable of making up my own mind.